Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president of the United States, is being mercilessly ridiculed for asking what Aleppo was when Morning Joe host Mike Barnicle mentioned the Syrian city on Thursday morning. But I’m grateful to Johnson. Many politicians in that situation would pretend they were familiar with Aleppo and then pivot to a more comfortable topic. (“Aleppo is, of course, a very serious issue that as president I would seek to address. But I gotta say: My top priority would be stopping wasteful government spending. That’s really the greatest threat to our national security,” etc.)
As a candidate for America’s highest office, Johnson should know what Aleppo is. But he’s certainly not alone in not knowing. And had he not asked the question, #WhatIsAleppo wouldn’t be trending on Twitter. BuzzFeed wouldn’t be asking its readers to find Aleppo on a map. People might not be discussing how Matt Lauer barely brought up Syria during NBC’s Commander in Chief Forum on Wednesday. We wouldn’t be talking as much about something we should be talking about more: the epicenter of Syria’s civil war and humanitarian crisis.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. It was once Syria’s vibrant commercial capital, and for the first year of the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad it remained relatively peaceful. But in July 2012, government and rebel forces began doing battle there. Aleppo and the Syrian political capital of Damascus “had been the two significant holdouts in the fighting that has gradually engulfed the rest of Syria,” The New York Times observed at the time. “[N]ow the whole country is inflamed. … Whoever controls the two jewels-in-the-crown controls Syria.”